In this week’s podcast, we interview legendary game designer and creator of Leisure Suit Larry, Al Lowe. Our very own Decoychunk spent an hour discussing the creative and financial sides of game making, as well as fascinating stories from the life of one of gaming’s greats. Topics include the fall of Sierra, choosing voice talent, and the past and possible future of Al Lowe’s many creations. In honor of the interview, this week’s video addresses some of the topics covered in the interview.
Listen to the podcast here
And here is the transcript of the interview:
Decoychunk: Everyone listening to this should hopefully know who you are, but if not, maybe you want to introduce yourself for the BrainLazy audience.
Al Lowe: Well, My name’s Al Lowe, and I worked for Sierra Online for sixteen years creating adventure games, including Leisure Suit Larry.
Decoychunk: Excellent. Well, Leisure Suit Larry, obviously, is iconic. I want to know. Is Leisure Suit Larry still paying the bills for you?
Al Lowe: <chuckling> Uh, no. He stopped contributing a long time ago.
Decoychunk: Yeah, I figured that was the case. LSL, it’s well known, once it left your hands it went 3D and went platformer. After Love For Sail (LSL 7), when you stopped being a part of it, they moved it to an action game, Magna Cum Laude and Box Office Bust. And as you also know, they were legendarily awful.
Al Lowe: <chuckles> So I’ve heard.
Decoychunk: I actually played both of them-
Al Lowe: Oh, I’m sorry.
Decoychunk: Out of loyalty to the series. We have a review on our site, actually. One of our first video reviews was of Box Office Bust, and the name of the review – the whole review series – was Why It Sucks.
Al Lowe: Well good, yeah! Well, I was proud to see that it got mentioned in some of the top ten worst games in history.
Decoychunk: Yeah, it’s got to be gratifying. But, I was wondering. Why do you suppose they took the Larry franchise and used it for that? It was such a different game. They moved so far away from adventure gaming, which where Larry made his name.
Al Lowe: Yeah, well, my belief is that they didn’t know what to do. They got in a new person in charge. The boss of the company was sent in to the offices here to close the place down, and instead he said, ‘I think we can make something happen!’ And so they said, ‘Alright you can try for a while but, you know, don’t waste any money. And with that sort of background in mind, you wonder how anybody got anything done. But the word that I had from my friends that remained at Sierra was that a company did a basketball game, and they were happy, they got it done in time, and I guess close to budget, and so they said, ‘Is there anything else you’d like to do?’ And they said, ‘Well, you’ve got that Leisure Suit Larry thing just lying there while nobody’s doing anything. Let us do a Larry game.’ And they said, ‘Ok.’ I mean there was no thought, no research, no study, no, you know, nothing, on it. It was just an off the cuff decision. They went away for a year, came back and showed the game to the company, and everybody laughed AT it. It was an embarrassment. And later I read a report by the guy who was the game designer who posted on his blog ‘how wonderful Sierra was to work with, because, you know, when we showed the game, it didn’t really work, and so they gave us another million dollars and we went back and we tried again with a different concept.’ So Magna Cum Laude was not the first try at it, it was the second, and it was years late and way over budget, and totally missed the whole point of the preceding games.
Al Lowe: Now, if you are trying to put out a new product, well, that doesn’t matter. But if your product tags on the name of Leisure Suit Larry, then people expect it to have something to do Leisure Suit Larry other than ‘you can meet Larry in a bar and he’ll give you helpful hints.’
Decoychunk: It’s true.
Al Lowe: Although I’ll have to say, some of the writing on that game was excellent. I would have been proud to do several of those scenes, but the gameplay was just horrible, and boring. The worst part was it was boring, I guess. And that’s the worst sin a game can commit.
Decoychunk: There were some points in the game that seemed like they were trying to distract you from some of the better writing, too. Like, there was a mechanic in the game where you were supposed to be having a conversation, and you’re getting progressively more drunk, and you have to control this little sperm on the bottom of the screen.
Al Lowe: Yeah.
Decoychunk: And if you’re doing well, you start getting these really funny lines, but you can’t focus on them. You have to focus on the bottom and control a purposely sluggish control scheme. It’s just unusual.
Al Lowe: Yeah, and to think of the expense that it took to implement the conversation, all the animation there with that character above, that you were not allowed to look at!
Decoychunk: Yes, it’s absurd!
Al Lowe: It was as if, yeah, let’s just waste money in any way we can while pissing the player off.
Decoychunk: Yeah. It does seem strange that they would have used, you know, a character iconic of adventure games. I guess they were trying to pull in the old audience to the new format, but it just seems like you would have just done an entirely new character if you were going to do an entirely new format.
Al Lowe: Yeah, well, it rarely works, does it?
Decoychunk: Yeah, it’s true. Now, Larry began to speak starting with number six (Shape Up or Slip Out), and I believe it as Jan Rabson?
Al Lowe: Jan Rabson.
Decoychunk: Yes. How did you find him, and how long did it take to cast that?
Al Lowe: <chuckles> Well, that’s an interesting question. This in the days before the Internet. Well, maybe not before the Internet, but before the web, for sure, and certainly before a lot of the conveniences we have today. So I flew to Hollywood, and went to a company whose job it was to cast voices for cartoons, commercials. Just anything, you know. Movies, backgrounds, anything. And video games, although we were one of the first video games that they had ever seen. And what I did was send them pictures of the characters, and descriptions of how I thought the voices would sound. They had a database with hundreds, probably thousands, of voice actors that worked in Hollywood all the time. And so they then scheduled a day when they brought in all the actors into a little studio in their offices. And I sat and gave directions through the glass window with an Engineer, and they read the sample lines on the other side of the glass. They recorded it all to a giant reel to reel tape, which was then transferred to a cassette, and at the end of the day I took home a cassette with twenty different guys reading Larry lines, and twenty different actresses reading, you know, girl lines and so forth, and I went back to the hotel and sat there all night with a little cassette player, maybe headphones and something, and tried to figure out which one of these voices have I been imagining all of my life as I wrote those other games. And it was a really tough decision. Partly because I knew how much weight was riding on that decision. I mean, the wrong voice can ruin a game.
Al Lowe: So I spent a ton of time. But Jan had something in his audition that made me believe that he could just do almost anything. Which turned out to be true. I mean, you don’t really know that when you only see somebody for ten or fifteen minutes, but I just had a sense that he was very experienced and well rounded and capable of doing lots and lots of things. And of course he turned out to be that. He always did Larry, but then he would always do a couple of other voices in each game just because that’s how we saved money. <chuckles>
Al Lowe: And you would never know it, because he could do voices that were so different from the Larry voice. Although the Larry voice is fairly close to his own. He would never like to hear me say that, I’m sure. <chuckles> But, I mean, it’s pretty close and therefore pretty easy for him to reproduce every time. So it was a fun part of the business.
Decoychunk: Yeah, I can imagine that would be fantastic. I understand it’s like an old voice actor’s trick to make the most important character you have to do very close to your own voice, because your own voice is a difficult voice to imitate. So it is hard to replace someone who’s just speaking in their normal speaking voice.
Al Lowe: Well, and it also works well for the director, because you know that he’s not gonna forget it between sessions, or have to be reminded. I mean, gosh, we worked with some guys that did, oh god, a thousand voices, I would bet. I mean hundreds of voices, easily. And all different. But they had to remember which one it was, you know? And they had to come up with just the phrase and the accent and the speed and the emphasis, where they put the emphasis on the different syllables. And so I always had to carry tapes of their previous work with me, and I would play it back for them. They would say, ‘Now wait, which voice was that? Who was this guy?’ And so I would play it back, and, ‘Oh, okay! Yeah, I got it, I got it, I got it!’ <chuckles>
Decoychunk: Nice. Yeah, so you were involved obviously in the casting of the voices. You were involved in every aspect of the games in some way, shape, or form. Especially for the early ones. You were a coder, you were a writer, you were a designer. You composed the music.
Al Lowe: Yeah, we were so cheap. That was the problem.
Decoychunk: What value do you think there is to having your hands in so many areas? Do you think it improves the overall game to have been a part of so much of it?
Al Lowe: Oh, I think it’s like the auteur director in a movie, you know? The more individual a movie is, the more that director has control of it, and the more his stamp is on it. So you know, if Scorsese did a film, you know what it’s going to be like. Or Woody Allen on the other extreme. And so therefore if you see somebody heavily involved throughout the production – Robert Williams is an example – I mean, you know if it’s a Roberta game, it’s gonna be, you know, kind of like Roberta in some way or another. And I think the same thing with my games.
Decoychunk: And that’s certainly the case. Your games have a personality to them that’s unmistakable.
Al Lowe: Yeah, and part of that there was never a vote. We never put it up to committee. We never had a meeting. We never had a focus group. We never did market research. Essentially, Ken Williams said, ‘What game would YOU like to play?’ And then, ‘Go Make it.’ And so we did. My goal for those games was, I wanted Scott Murphy to laugh at them. I wanted Mark Crowe to think they were funny. I wanted Ken Williams to crack up at them. And the fact that I was geared to those kinds of people. I think that ended up rubbing off, and the rest of the people tended to like them, also. But we didn’t really do a lot of the things that are commonly done today, and that I don’t think, maybe, are that effective, you know? I think a lot of the games that are produced by committee look like it, feel like it.
Decoychunk: It’s absolutely true. Because, I mean, there are certain games you’ll play where you can almost see the seams, you know, where, well, something else must have been here, or two people must have written these two portions, because these characters are sort of getting derailed a little bit between scenes.
Al Lowe: Oh, well. Magnum Cum Laude was that way. That was a perfect example of it, because some of the scenes were really funny writing. Well those were the ones where they hired the Hollywood comedy guys to write. And those were great! And there was a lot of others. They didn’t work the last year of that project. So all of the stuff that came up after the few scenes that they did were written by programmers or the game designer, or somebody else at the company and just weren’t at all in the same league.
Decoychunk: Yeah. The one place we still see the programmers and the designers doing everything. More or less, the only place where everyone does everything is Indie gaming. Do you have any opinions on the state of indie gaming today? Because it has sort of gotten big.
Al Lowe: I think it’s wonderful. I think that’s the hope for creativity in the future. I just don’t see these legions of animators and level designers and so forth ever producing some breakthrough idea. I just don’t see that happening. It’s going to be from the casual game market, I think.
Decoychunk: Yeah. It’s true. You’ve spoken in the past about how basically the business of game making prevents something new from happening, because you have to base the budget off of the previous projected gross. So anything new is unknowable.
Al Lowe: Yeah. I don’t know how aware your listeners are of that, but the business of today is pretty much run by the sales department, who looks at a title that’s already on the marketplace and says, ‘Oh, that sold a lot, let’s make one like that!’ Well, you’re not going to ever get anything creative THAT way! <chuckles> And you’re always a year behind.
Decoychunk: No, it’s true.
Al Lowe: And then a lot of people wonder why those big games don’t make a lot of money, or aren’t popular. It’s because we’ve already played them! You know? If all you’re doing is changing the angle of the character’s ankle as he walks up the ramp, you know? <chuckles>
Decoychunk: It’s a fine line. It’s like God of War. God of War came out, and then a few years later there was just a slew of imitators. And even still. Because God of War continues to be such a successful franchise you see things like Dante’s Inferno, which was just mind boggling, and Darksiders. At least Darksiders moved into, like, homage territory, where it seemed like it was less ripping off, and more paying tribute.
Al Lowe: See, I thought you were going to say ‘Amish Territory.’
Decoychunk: Amish territory!
Al Lowe: And that would have been creative.
Decoychunk: I want to see an Amish video game!
Al Lowe: <chuckles> Yeah, you don’t have to worry about offending them, I guess. Because they’ll never know!
Decoychunk: That’s true. They’ll never find out.
Al Lowe: <chuckles>
Decoychunk: So adventure games used to be king, as your success would indicate, but then they fell from grace about the time the graphics started to go polygonal. Do you think there is any sort of correlation between the move away from two dimensional and the fall of adventure games?
Al Lowe: You know, I’m not sure it’s not just coincidental. I think adventure games had run their course, and they had a certain limited marketplace that, during the 80’s, was the majority of people who owned computers. But as computers became easier to use, and more and more people had them, suddenly there were more people who weren’t familiar with adjusting their config.sys, and their extended memory management, and their sound card interrupts. <chuckles> Oh god, all of those horrible things we used to go through. You know, in the 80’s, in the early days, when the adventure games first started, you HAD to be a problem solver in order to run a computer.
Decoychunk: It’s true. It was practically a puzzle.
Al Lowe: You couldn’t put it in front of your mom and have it work, you know? It would never happen. And you had to be a typist. So the typing interface, and the fact that it wouldn’t tolerate the slightest misspelling, all of that went along with DOS. That’s the way DOS worked. And the problem solving, the puzzle solving aspect of adventure games, was exactly what people were doing in order to get their machines to work, you know? You HAD to figure out those weird things and how to setup, oh, how to setup a RAM disk…
Decoychunk: Oh, yeah.
Al Lowe: Jiminy Christmas, that was- Thank god those days are gone. But I think it just goes to show that it wasn’t so much the 3D that killed adventure games as it was the fact that the audience broadened and puzzle solving, all of those other things that we enjoyed doing in adventure games, didn’t go with them. And plus I think that there was a certain amount of, oh, just tiredness. I think the games, because we used the same engine for everything, which was quite cost effective.
Al Lowe: And it enabled us to churn out a game a year. It also didn’t produce new looks and new feels and new experiences as much. And of course, that same thing said, the book interface hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot in five hundred years, and yet people still turn out great books.
Decoychunk: It’s true.
Al Lowe: And so there still is a market there. But I think a lot of adventure game players just grew tired of it and went on to other things. I know I did. I mean I rarely play a game anymore. I have other interests now.
Decoychunk: Your last foray into attempting to make a game was with iBase. You tried to make a comedy action game.
Al Lowe: An action comedy.
Decoychunk: An action comedy. There you are.
Al Lowe: Uh huh. Yep. I stole that phrase from Jackie Chan.
Decoychunk: Well done!
Al Lowe: Yeah. <chuckles>
Decoychunk: Yeah, so. First off, your games have been focused, of course, on comedy. You had some games that weren’t so heavy on the comedy. Even Leisure Suit Larry, which some people associate with being naughty, were still sort of the ‘laughing in church’ style naughty, where it is more focused on the comedy than the raunchiness.
Al Lowe: Yeah, I went to Germany, early on in the game’s history, and it took me several interviews there before I realized that they didn’t realize it was a joke. <chuckles>
Al Lowe: I mean, later on they did, but I think, after the first game it was like, yeah, they were taking this seriously. I’m gonna have to educate them, you know? This is a gag thing. This is comedy. <chuckles>
Decoychunk: Let me ask you this. Do you think there are any types of games that lend themselves better to comedy than others?
Al Lowe: Well… Comedy, I think, requires interaction between people. And so the games where you don’t interact – where your character doesn’t interact with other characters – that’s pretty difficult. So if your first instinct is to run inside and kill, yeah, you’re probably not going to get a lot of laughs out of that. I mean, I would have trouble coming up with how to make that funny. Now you’ve always got those sardonic lines, the Bruce Willis killing lines, that add a certain amount of humor to it, but-
Decoychunk: The death puns.
Al Lowe: Death puns, exactly, but I think you need interaction. When we did “Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure” for iBase, it was about the interaction between the characters in the mystery. I mean, that game had an excellent mystery plot that went on throughout it. The action part of it was crucial for obtaining information and solving the mystery, but it was essentially a mystery game with a lot of action. And then the interactions were where I put the comedy, so that when you talked to people they often had odd personalities or quirks, or wanted odd things, or asked odd questions. You know, funny interactions that way, but it was not so much in the action parts as it was in the dialogue.
Decoychunk: So, speaking of Sam Suede. How far along did you get in the game, and how far along was the embryonic game that never was?
Al Lowe: <chuckles> Well, I got the overall design finished so that we got a strong plot that went from beginning to end. I fleshed out all of the characters and had descriptions of all of them. But I hadn’t really written any dialogue at all, and that was the state that it was in when we shut down the company. So I was a little surprised last year, or whenever it was, to hear that somebody was going to produce the game, because as far as I was concerned the humor hadn’t been put in it yet. All that was there was the characters, the plot, and the scenes. I mean, we knew our puzzles well, and our levels. We knew exactly what would be in each area, geographically, and all of that, but the humor part of it just didn’t exist. And so I don’t know who they are going to get to write that, because they’ve never mentioned a word to me about being involved.
Al Lowe: Again. <chuckles>
Decoychunk: I was unaware, actually, that any attempt had been made to resurrect it.
Al Lowe: Uh, well, all I know is that I got a lot of email from different people who said, ‘Wow, congratulations, your game is going to come back out’ and it was like, ‘What?’ But the current owners of the intellectual property evidently found a company someplace to produce something from it, so, I don’t know. People can google this and find out more than I know.
Decoychunk: We’ll have to dig into that. (We were able to find a news post on Icarus Studios’ website. )
Al Lowe: Yeah.
Decoychunk: So, some of the other characters you’ve created. You did Freddy Pharkas…
Al Lowe: Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist.
Decoychunk: Which is a favorite of mine. And also Torrin’s Passage.
Al Lowe: Yeah, I was proud of Torrin.
Decoychunk: Who owns those right now?
Al Lowe: Who knows? Uh, I believe they are owned by Activision, as the inheritors of the Sierra properties, but the intellectual property has gone through probably six owners since Ken Williams had the company stolen from him back in… 1997, I guess it was? And I don’t say that lightly, by the way, that’s been proven in federal court.
Al Lowe: Yeah. If somebody wants a fascinating read, google for Cendant, CUC, trial, Forbes – like the magazine – and you’ll read about a guy named Walter Forbes, who was a board member at Sierra and then one morning called up and told Ken he was going to do a hostile take over of not only his company, but also of Davidson Software, which owned Blizzard. And the same morning he executed a hostile takeover, took away those two companies, and then later turned out to have been lying and deceitful, and was arrested and tried several times, and finally convicted and sent to jail for the rest of his life. And his buddies who did it with him, all of them are in a federal penitentiary right now. So it was an ugly story. For a company that was started on a young couple’s kitchen table and nurtured into a billion dollar market capitalization company, it was a really sad ending.
Decoychunk: Yeah. Yeah, its true.
Al Lowe: What the hell? How did that open up? <chuckles> Did you hear that?
Decoychunk: Yeah! <chuckles> Well let’s rewind a little bit, then. Speaking of Freddy Pharkas and Torrin’s passage. Let’s stay what happened with the LSL series happened and someone decided they wanted to reopen this, only this time maybe you were going to be involved. Would you be interested in helping someone produce a sequel?
Al Lowe: Oh, well you know, that’s a difficult question to answer, because I had it great with Sierra during the Ken Williams Era. Because, basically, he’d say, ‘What do you want to do next?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, why don’t we put Larry in a Health Spa?’ And he’d say, ‘Okay!’
Al Lowe: I mean that was basically our pitch meeting. And he gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted to do, and gave me the resources, and the artists, and the programmers and the musicians and everybody to create my vision. And boy, that’s gonna be damn hard to do today.
Decoychunk: Yeah, its true.
Al Lowe: First of all there’s nobody with that kind of power in the industry anymore. There is no Ken Williams that can just say, ‘Yeah, here’s a million dollars, or here’s five million dollars, go have fun!’ Those people don’t really exist anymore. And secondly, the question would be, how much control could I have of it, and where would I go with a sequel that is so damaged? You know? Magna Cum Laude was like, I said on my website, it was like getting a video tape from your son’s kidnappers. You know? On the one hand it’s nice to know he’s still alive, but on the other, my god, look what they’ve done to him! It’s just the way I felt. It was terrible to see that. And BOB (Box Office Bust) was even worse! So I don’t know that it is redeemable at this point. But, you know, I guess stranger things could happen. It could all be a 3D dream, I suppose.
Decoychunk: Yeah, just wipe it all out.
Al Lowe: Yeah. Or he awakes and he’s back in Las Vegas. I don’t know. That would be a difficult thing to do. I thought the iBase deal I had was perfect. I had the control and I had the creative license, freedom to do it. And we came up with a new way to do an action game. And I thought it was damn funny. And the dialogue we DID write, you know, made people laugh, but it turned out that because we changed from a second generation game into a third generation game- In other words we started out designing and writing for the Xbox and PS2, and then the PS3 and the Xbox360 came out, and we said oh, we better switch over to, you know, much more realistic graphics – well, instead of doubling the price of creation it went up by tenfold.
Al Lowe: And so we ran out of money, and we had to shut the company down. It was that simple. So I guess my answer would be, if people let me be funny, and let me do it, I know I could do another one, and do it well. And I know I could do it better than its been done since.
Al Lowe: But that’s not a very high bar, is it? <chuckles>
Decoychunk: No, no it isn’t. So, if you could bring back Freddy Pharkas, or Torrin, which one of those do you think has a chance nowadays?
Al Lowe: Well, Torrin was originally designed to be five games. I had sketched, I wouldn’t say I had finished documents by any means, but I had sketches of five games that took him from his initial coming of age story to mature life and through conflict as ruler, and having a child and growing old, and eventually dying in the fifth chapter. And so that would be an easy one to do, and because it was based in a fantasy land, it is easy to pick up where we left off and not worry about changes and things. But again, here, I think it would be much more action oriented than it would be just puzzle based. There would be puzzles, but there would be action puzzles. And there would be comedy. But the comedy would be in the dialogues and in the unusual characters, and situations, and objects you meet, and so forth… And here I’m giving away all of this to anyone who wants to go do it.
Al Lowe: Isn’t that nice?
Decoychunk: Yeah, free advice for the game makers of today!
Al Lowe: And god bless ‘em, if somebody does it, I’ll be so happy to play a game that’s fun again! It would be great, wouldn’t it?
Decoychunk: It would be great. You know, speaking of that. Are there any game makers of today that you have any respect for? Are you a fan of anything that’s coming out right now?
Al Lowe: Uh, well. I’m a big fan of Tim Shafer. I always thought he did great stuff. And the Monkey Island games have been consistently funny. I think the Sam and Max games that are out now seem to be doing well, and they’re funny. But there’s just not a lot of funny stuff out there, is there?
Decoychunk: No, there isn’t. It’s just not the focus anymore. You can convince a big studio that you can make a very successful comedy movie, but it really takes a special maker and a special studio combined to try to throw money at a funny game. Like Brutal Legend was the biggest recent attempt to have a sense of humor in a game.
Al Lowe: Uh huh.
Decoychunk: Yeah, so Telltale. I was actually going to mention Telltale, because what you’re saying about Torrin’s passage is a good example. Telltale’s had a lot of success with episodic adventure games.
Al Lowe: Mm Hmm.
Decoychunk: I guess what I want to say is, do you think the sort of bite sized sequel style adventure games is a good direction that they’re taking it?
Al Lowe: You know, I have mixed emotions, because as a player I like to go at my own speed, and I hate to come to a stop and then have to wait until the next one comes out. On the other hand, I think they can make more money by selling six games for ten bucks than they do one game for forty bucks. And I look at it from the other side of the coin. It’s not so much that it cost me more money, it’s that they’ve made a better game. And so I kind of like the idea of them making better games. And so I don’t know. I’d love to see how their sales figures are running. And I have no knowledge of that, of course.
Al Lowe: I’m not really up on that.
Decoychunk: Okay, so. Good Old Games. Lots of your games are what you might call abandonware. At the very least there’s probably not a fully functional version of them available on modern computers. GOG is a company that picks up games of that sort and does a little bit of work on them to make them distributable in a modern context.
Al Lowe: Well, I might interrupt you and say that I think all of the games work fine with DOSbox.
Decoychunk: Oh, DOSbox, that’s true.
Al Lowe: It’s a free, open source product that, as far as I know, all of my games work fine. In fact, the windows games like Larry 7 and Larry’s casino and those, I think they work just fine in… Well they work in XP. I think Vista has some quirks where if you let it install into the program files directory you get security violations or something.
Al Lowe: Whereas if you put it in the ol’ \Sierra\Larry directory, I believe it runs fine in Vista. I haven’t tried it in windows 7 yet, because I don’t have a machine. But yeah, GOG is a great idea. I would love to see that happen. In fact, I hope to convince Activision to produce an actual, real, Leisure Suit Larry compilation for the 25th anniversary. Some sort of silver anniversary edition that contains EVERYTHING Larry that we ever did in one place. I would think that that would be a salable product.
Decoychunk: I would have to agree. I’d certainly pick it up.
Al Lowe: And none of the compilations has been complete. Every one of them has omitted SOMETHING somewhere along the line, and what I’d like to do is put everything in. Complete with all of the corollary materials that we did. We did cocktail napkins for the first game, I think. And we did some hilarious brochures for some games. Just a whole lot of things that have dropped off along the way. We sent out decks of playing cards with Larry’s Casino.
Al Lowe: And I just thought it would be fun to produce a top notch edition that contained all the stuff.
Decoychunk: Yeah, let me tell you, I know plenty of people who would be picking that up. Especially if you threw in the little extras like that. I have a friend, the person who would have been interviewing you right now. He would be freaking out if he found out that there was any way he could get his hands on something of that sort.
Al Lowe: Have him tell Activision! Tell Activision it is a good idea! Because they’re the owners of the product right now.
Decoychunk: I’ll try to spread the word on that one.
Al Lowe: Yeah!
Decoychunk: Alright, speaking of the new computers, and the way things are going. Lots of the mobile phones right now are, first off, literally thousands of times faster than some of the early computer systems that these games were running on, and adventure games went primarily touch based, and now virtually every cell phone, and the Wii, has got a point and click interface. Do you think that there is a place on mobile phones for stuff of this sort?
Al Lowe: You know, I thought that ten years ago. Some guys in Russia took the old King’s Quest and Larry and Space Quest games – this was in the year 2000, I believe – and made them run on the Symbian OS way back then. And they had no trouble making the games work on cell phones ten years ago. When I saw them, I suggested they take stuff to… who owned the stuff then? Not Vivendi… Havas? I don’t know, one of those names that <chuckles> the company went through since then, and talk with them and they just said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We don’t know how to do that.’ And the guy said, ‘We’ve got it done! They’re all running. Here, you can play them.’ ‘Yeah, yeah. I don’t know who we’d talk to about that…’ And they just blew him off, I mean that was ten years ago, so the fact that five years ago Sierra paid some poor guy a pittance to make a Larry phone game that, evidently, sold a little bit. I never played it, but from what I heard from players who emailed me, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they expected, but it was only like an hour of gameplay. But the fact that they would produce a product… And, of course, they used the same name as one of my games.
Decoychunk: Did they.
Al Lowe: Yeah. Which I thought was really clever. On my website I list 32 names that we didn’t use for that game. The whole long list of titles. They could have used any one of those. <chuckles> But they used love for sail. And it had nothing to do with Love for Sail. Absolutely nothing. So people people bought it thinking they were getting a cellphone version of my game, and of course got, well, you know.
Decoychunk: Why produce a high end product when you can just trick someone into thinking they’ve got a high end product?
Al Lowe: Yeah, well, you know? Yes. <chuckles> That’s not the way we used to do business. What did we know, you know?
Decoychunk: Yeah, well, they’ve added a couple of zeroes to all of the budgets.
Al Lowe: I don’t know how many people realize that when Sierra was stolen – when Sierra got taken away from Ken – that Sierra had 28% market share. More than Activision. More than Broderbund, more than Blizzard, more than ANYBODY. I mean, it was crazy! And they drove that, in five years, to almost nothing. They completely destroyed the company.
Decoychunk: Yeah. It’s terrible. It seems like anytime big business meets anything trying to produce an artistic output, the art suffers enormously.
Al Lowe: Yeah.
Decoychunk: Speaking of art, by the way – this isn’t actually on my list of questions, here, but – Roger Ebert recently said that video games “can never be art.” Do you agree with that in any way, shape, or form?
Al Lowe: No, no. What does he know? <chuckles>
Decoychunk: Yeah. If you read the article, it is clear he hasn’t picked up a game.
Al Lowe: I like his opinions about movies.
Decoychunk: Well he KNOWS movies.
Al Lowe: He and I often agree on movies, but no. That just shows ignorance.
Decoychunk: It does. It shows a tremendous amount of ignorance.
Al Lowe: Yeah.
Decoychunk: So anyhow, I was talking about the direction that technology is going. So E3 just passed, and there’s a lot of focus now on actual 3D. Like ‘wearing glasses’ 3D, as opposed to just polygonal. And also motion controllers. Do you think that any of this is just a gimmick or a fad? Or is there possibilities they might offer?
Al Lowe: I think the possibility is in the Nintendo 3DS.
Decoychunk: Oh, the 3DS? Absolutely.
Al Lowe: Yeah, that seems to me. You know, the glasses? Those are never gonna… Well, I could be wrong, of course, but in my opinion you’ll never see the 3D glasses become popular. It’s just too much trouble.
Al Lowe: But, you know, my understanding is that with in a few years they’ll be able to produce home TVs with 3D without glasses. And when that happens, hell, yes.
Decoychunk: Really, that’s the future. That and Kinect. Kinect is practically minority report. If it works the way it seems it is going to work. If they can get it to work the way it might, Kinect is really impressive as well.
Al Lowe: Boy, you know, you just nailed it right there, because I doubt that it does work the way that it’s supposed to work. My feeling is that it is going to be like a lot of other things, and when it first comes out it is going to be real rough, and real crude, and it’ll be refined over the years. You know Microsoft has a history of producing great software that’s called version 3.0.
Decoychunk: <chuckles> It’s true.
Al Lowe: And I suspect that that’s what is going to happen with Kinect. It’s going to be usable for some gross motor functions, but you can never play a shooter with it, you can never play a lot of things that take any sort of accuracy or intricacy. And its going to take quite a while before that. But, that’s the joy of electronics, is that all of this stuff, as it becomes popular, as it sells more. As the costs to make it more sophisticated increase, and things get better and cheaper. And that’s the glory of electrical and electronics versus mechanical.
Decoychunk: It’s true. So that’s the state of games right now. Are there any games today that you’re interested in? Do you still play games?
Al Lowe: I play – I hesitate to admit this – I play casual games. I don’t have time to… I saw World of Warcraft, and I watched what happened to my friends who got hooked, and I just thought, If I do this, I’ll never do anything else, and I have other things I need to do. And I watched a lot of guys spend thousands of hours there that they could have done other things. And so I stayed away from that purposefully and from all of the major online multiplayer games. But no, the games that I like are the games that I can pick up quickly and play on my iPod touch, or something that I can knock out in between doing other things in maybe five or ten or twenty minutes and I’m done. That said, if I had a chance to play a comedy adventure game, you know, I would probably get into it. Because I still read a lot.And I always thought that a big part of adventure games appealed to people who read a lot of books and magazines and newspapers and things, because there was so much reading involved, and understanding. I mean you had to just read and understand as opposed to just letting the words flow past you when things are read to you.
Decoychunk: Yeah. So, obviously you’ve made a lot of big contributions to games, and you’ve sort of shaped the modern state of the medium in some ways. Let’s say you had never bought the apple II. What career do you think you would have spent most of your time with if you hadn’t spent most of your time with games?
Al Lowe: Oh, well. I was an experienced music teacher and music administrator. I taught band and orchestra and jazz band for ten years, and then was a school music administrator for another five. Which is where I learned computers, How to code, just by hacking on the school’s mini computer. How to do jobs that I thought were boring. You know, if the school district had hired me a secretary, I probably would have never bothered to learn computers. But because they didn’t, and I had to do a lot of typing and creating of reports and things I realized, ‘Oh my god, this word processing thing is cool. And from that I got into basic programing, I got into database management and I did a lot of things with all of that, and so really, the last part of when I was working as a school administrator, I was always hacking at some program. And so I probably would have stayed with that, and I would have retired from teaching by now.
Decoychunk: Well, it’s amazing how that sort of thing develops. It’s great how ‘I don’t have time to be spending my time on this monotonous thing’ turns into ‘Here’s a gigantic series of successful, entertaining games.’
Al Lowe: You know, and that’s the thing about the decisions you make in life. You never know which ones are the big ones at the time. I had a college roommate who was a drummer. And I say that because… you’ll understand why at the end of the story. And I had a best friend, a very dear friend, who was best man at my wedding and everything, who ran a school district where I went to college. I did my student teaching with him, and we played together in bands on weekends and stuff. We were great friends. I went in to him for a job interview and I never heard back from him. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s odd. I guess he was awkward. He didn’t make a decision yet, or he doesn’t know.’ So I went on to a different job interview, and they said, ‘Well, you’ve got to make a decision now. Do you want this job or not?’ Well, I hadn’t heard from the other guy, so I figured I better take this one, so I did. And then that weekend, at a gig, I saw my friend, and he said, ‘How come you never returned my phone call?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I left a message with your roommate.’ The drummer, who of course forgot to give it to me, but had I taken that job instead of the other one, I’m certain my life would have been totally different. I’m sure I would have stayed in the college town, and probably retired from teaching. And never been involved with any of this. So you never know! You never know how life is going to turn out. That’s the joy of it. If you could read it all ahead of time, who’d want to play?
Decoychunk: Absolutely, yeah. That’s sort of funny, because that’s how this site came to be. There were three of us who thought, ‘We all say stupid stuff all of the time. Maybe other people want to see our stupid stuff we say.’
Al Lowe: Yeah!
Decoychunk: And then over the last four years it evolved. And we start going to conventions and we start talking to people who, you know, we’ve admired our whole lives.
Al Lowe: Well I’ll hang up now and let you talk to that person. <chuckles>
Decoychunk: <chucles> Well, just a few more things to wrap things up here.
Al Lowe: Sure!
Decoychunk: What are your current hobbies? How do you spend your time?
Al Lowe: Oh, well. I run my website, which we haven’t plugged yet.
Decoychunk: Yeah, I actually have a note here, ‘Let him plug his site.’
Al Lowe: I’m derelict in my plugging thing. I run www.allowe.com, which is a humor site which is not like other humor sites, in that I only put up probably a half of one percent of everything that I receive. It’s not the place to go to see everything funny. It’s just that everything there IS funny. And you don’t have to go through all of that chaff that’s on other sites. So my primary role there is as editor, in that I go through and pick out the stuff that I think is funny, and I don’t bother you with all of the rest. And I also run Cyberjoke 3000, which is a daily joke email I’ve been running for, oh, over eleven years now. I send out two jokes every weekday morning, so that you can at least open up your morning email and start your day with a chuckle. I send out two jokes because one of them is clean. <Chuckles>
Decoychunk: That’s good! You know, I’ve got to appreciate that. Little kids are the ones, you can tell little jokes to kids. Little kids want to hear jokes. And sometimes I’ll hear a joke that’s hilarious, and I’ll be laughing about the joke, and I’ll run into a little cousin, and I’ll be like… uh, I can’t tell you. I’ll have to go into my repertoire, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I know a joke about an elephant, I’ll tell them that one.’
Al Lowe: Yeah, so the benefit on that one is not only the editing, because again, I’m pretty picky in what I send out, but also in that I fix all of the misspellings, I fix all of the grammar and the misspellings. The tense of the jokes. I tighten them all up, make them shorter, punchier. That’s my value add to the think. So I now have over six thousand jokes, all unique. I never run a repeat. We pay a lot of attention to not repeating jokes. So I’m building up quite a library of jokes. And those are going to be on the website soon, too. So those are my two, you know, major humor hobbies. I also do a lot of volunteer work for local non-profits. I’m heavily involved in model railroading.
Al Lowe: I run several websites for the model railroad groups around here: blogs and things. That’s all fun. And then I just got a granddaughter and man, that’s the best thing ever because it’s like having a kid except you don’t have to worry about all the bad stuff.
Decoychunk: <Laughs> Yeah, just hand them off for that part.
Al Lowe: <Laughing> Yeah, yeah, whoops, she’s dirty, here!
Decoychunk: That’s fantastic.
Al Lowe: Yeah, and I play a lot of golf, plus I read a lot. I’ve always been a heavy reader. One of the joys of retirement is that I get to read the New York Times from cover to cover every day. There’s a lot of density in that paper so that’s a great way for me to spend at least an hour or two a day. Plus I run a sixteen piece big band. I still play jazz every week and often sometimes more than once. Yeah, so I’m heavily involved in a lot of things. And still happily married too, even after all those Larry games.
Decoychunk: That’s an impressive achievement by itself.
Al Lowe: <Laughs>
Decoychunk: I’ve got two more things I’m gonna say based off of what I’ve just heard here. First off, model railroading. Something my uncle wanted me to ask you. He found out you were into model railroads. He actually knows nothing about games, but he knows who you are.
Al Lowe: Wow, really?
Decoychunk: So you could feel happy about that. Three of his daughters played your games. So maybe he’s not happy that he knows who you are. <Laughs> But he said, “Oh, he’s a model railroad buff, what’s his favorite gauge?”.
Al Lowe: That’s something you didn’t mention: the large number of women who loved Larry.
Decoychunk: No, it’s true. It’s true. Like I said, three of his four daughters have played the games.
Al Lowe: Yeah, I’ve always figured it was because I always wrote the female characters in the games to be the smarter ones. They were more clever, more experience, wiser, and so forth. And Larry was always the boob, ya know, that was made fun of. So they were actually, what’s the opposite of misogynistic? I can never remember. In other words, they were anti-male games.
Decoychunk: Yeah, they really were. It’s true. You know what it is? You can poke fun at yourself.
Al Lowe: Well, yeah, that’s right. Exactly. Ah, let’s see. I’m an N-scale, to answer your question.
Decoychunk: Alright, I’ll write that down and let him know. I don’t know an awful lot about it, but he goes to the model train shows and such.
Al Lowe: Oh, yeah. Well, I’m an N-track person. N-track is a portable system that uses 2×4 foot tables that all interconnect. They’re written to a spec. You know, it’s a lot like music and a lot like programming, now that I think about it. Because something about me is drawn to those kinds of fields. Each of those tables starts out as just a big blank space and just like a game, but you have to follow certain rules to make them interconnect with everyone else. But then what you do on them is up to you. So there’s a combination of the engineering and the rigidity of certain rules and sets that have to be followed, but after that you’ve got all this creativity you can express throughout the thing. Yep, there it all ties together.
Decoychunk: It’s true. One last thing, before I go, you’re into a big band: jazz and all that. There’s an artist named Richard Cheese. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.
Al Lowe: No.
Decoychunk: Richard Cheese is a comedy artist. He’s a lounge singer. He takes modern music and makes it into lounge music. It’s hilarious. It’s just one of those things where Leisure Suite Larry: Land of the Lounge Lizards. Played that when I was younger and then I’ve run into this guy who does comedy and lounge music. If you ever feel like checking it out, he’s got a site with that stuff on it.
Al Lowe: Put a link in this article about this.
Decoychunk: I’ll do so.
Al Lowe: Yeah, I’d like to see it.
Decoychunk: It’s great because whenever he asks people to spread his name he says, “Please keep on spreading the cheese”.
Al Lowe: <Laughs>
Decoychunk: But, I want to thank you very much for talking to us.
Al Lowe: You’re welcome.
Decoychunk: And I hope I did an okay job.
Al Lowe: You did great. It was fun talking with you.
Decoychunk: Well, thank you very much.
Al Lowe: It’s been a pleasurable hour.
Decoychunk: Well, I’ll just sign off then and once again, thank you for joining us.
Al Lowe: You’re welcome. Bye bye.
Decoychunk: Bye bye.